State regulators are moving forward with plans to widen Crawfordville Highway, despite concerns about the impacts to nearby Wakulla Springs. Conservationists hoped the state would amend the design to reduce pollution and add animal crossings.
The project is twenty years in the making, and will significantly expand the footprint of the road extending from the Leon County line to the intersection of Highway 98 in front of Wakulla County High School.
The entire tract is at various points of construction and planning, but the project that came before the Acquisitions and Restoration Council on Friday deals with the section of highway that passes through the Wakulla Springs State Park.
The road-widening project is designed to facilitate traffic between Wakulla and Leon Counties, and to accommodate the expected population growth south of Tallahassee. The Florida Department of Transportation says the project will reduce congestion and roadway accidents, and provide important access in the case of hurricanes or other emergencies.
The plan will add two lanes of traffic, expanded road shoulders, a forty foot wide median and four stormwater retention ponds, and requires the use of forty-two acres of park land. The project has faced numerous challenges both due to public resistance and due to the topographic and geological nature of the area. This part of the state rests a top of system of karst limestone that is porous and pocked with holes. The limestone geology, underground cave systems, sink holes, high water table, and proximity to Wakulla Springs mean FDOT has little leeway in re-orienting the road and stormwater ponds.
Conservationists worry the project will contribute to harmful nitrate pollution, which filters into the springs and contributes to algae blooms that choke the natural ecosystem. Spurred by public concerns, FDOT considered using special biological material to help absorb and break down nitrates, but ultimately decided the approach wouldn't make a significant difference. Retired Florida State University environmental planning professor and vice chair of the Wakulla Springs Alliance Robert Deyle estimates the increased nitrate load from the project will equate to that of eight septic tanks. To put that number in perspective, there are more than four thousand septic tanks in the Wakulla Springs Basin, far exceeding the impacts from the road.
Still, Deyle hopes the state will consider purchasing additional land to offset the affects of the nitrate runoff.
"The basic concept here is if we purchase land that would otherwise be developed, we prevent new development with septic tanks that will deliver nitrogen into the groundwater," Deyle said.
There are also concerns that increased traffic, and potentially more residential development, will lead to more run-ins with wildlife in the area, including black bears, which are making a comeback in Florida. Kent Wimmer represents the Defenders of Wildlife.
“We’re not arguing against the highway, we just wanted to see them take actions to mitigate the impacts, direct impacts, to the state park land and to the wildlife that live in the area,” he said.
Wimmer and other conservationists argue the state should incorporate features like tunnels, culverts or fences that guide wildlife under or around the road. According to FDOT's current plans, some animals would be able to travel through underground pipes that connect the stormwater ponds. However, there will be a concrete tunnel called a box culvert incorporated into a separate construction project farther south. Although not technically designated as a wildlife crossing, animals are able to use it as such.
The regulators ultimately approved the plan without the changes requested by conservationists. The project now goes to the Florida Cabinet for final approval.